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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

General Assembly likely to ignore accessory dwelling "compromise" written to appease the CCA

 General Assembly seems ready to pass "tiny house" legislation

By Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

After a two-year stalemate, Rhode Island lawmakers appear poised to pass legislation making it easier for property owners to build accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.

Amended companion bills advanced by the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government late Tuesday are nearly identical to the original proposal championed by House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, and already given the greenlight by the Rhode Island House in February. 

The Senate panel’s 5-2 vote returns the revised legislation to the full House of Representatives, and sends it to the full Senate for the first time. Floor votes in each chamber are expected on the final day of session on Thursday, June 13, though there may also be amendments made on the floor, as Sen. Roger Picard, a Woonsocket Democrat and committee chairman, told fellow lawmakers Tuesday.

Picard and Sen. Gordon Rogers, a Foster Republican, voted against advancing the amended legislation to the floor.

The only change from the original House bill: clarifying that the “by right” allowances to build ADUs in certain circumstances — including for family members with disabilities or for units built within an existing home rather than as add-ons or standalone structures —  are limited to one unit per lot.

“That was the intent of the bill all along,” Rep. June Speakman, a Warren Democrat and bill sponsor, said in an interview on Tuesday. “The idea was not that you would build a backyard full of them.”

State law already allows ADUs, either within or detached from a single family home. But vast and varied local zoning and building requirements have stifled their spread.

The House legislation, Shekarchi’s top legislative priority for two years running, aims to cut through the municipal red tape by preventing cities and towns from adding extra conditions around frontage and setbacks or infrastructure requirements beyond what is required by state law. 

Yet town planners and local officials have railed against a perceived loss of local control. Last year, the Rhode Island Senate punted a decision amid municipal outcry.

In March, Sen. Victoria Gu, a Westerly Democrat, offered a compromise version that appeared to appease even the harshest local critics. Unlike the House version, Gu’s bill gives extra powers to cities and towns to set owner occupancy and minimum lease length requirements for ADUs.

The American Planning Association’s Rhode Island chapter (APA RI) threw its weight behind Gu’s legislation, having helped to draft the bill text itself. But none of those protections were incorporated into the legislation advanced by the Senate committee.

Meanwhile, the compromise bill is still languishing in the same committee without a scheduled vote, much to the chagrin of local planners.

Jane Weidman 👉, Charlestown town planner and legislative subcommittee chair for the Rhode Island chapter of the American Planning Association, praised the compromise ADU bill introduced by Sen. Victoria Gu of Westerly as ‘an excellent example of how legislation should be crafted.’ But the extra powers the bill gives to cities are absent from the legislation advanced by the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government. (Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

“It is quite unfortunate that a collaborative effort of many months with countless hours spent by many different advocates, often with competing positions, who came together for a strong ADU bill that will correct the shortcomings of the existing law, give communities the safeguards they specifically requested, and build in the flexibility to encourage communities to develop ADUs beyond those permitted by right, is not being considered,” Jane Weidman, Charlestown town planner and APA RI legislative subcommittee chair, wrote in a Monday email to lawmakers and shared with Rhode Island Current. 

“The Senate bill spearheaded by Senator Gu is an excellent example of how legislation should be crafted. It was an open and inclusive process, and the bill is so much better for it.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Actually, instead of being "an open and inclusive process," Gu's legislation was written by the planning lobby group to advance the interests of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA). The CCA believes that Charlestown should be able to reject state laws on land use to suit its own undefined definition of "rural character." CCA founder and town Planning Commissar Ruth Platner has long opposed any practical approach to accessory dwelling units.    - Will Collette

The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns also backed the owner-occupancy provision. Lauren Greene, a spokesperson for The League, referred to the organization’s prior testimony when asked for comment Tuesday.

However, housing advocates previously warned that requiring owner occupancy would eliminate interested homeowners who can’t self-finance the secondary structures  because some banks are reluctant to approve home loans with those stipulations.

Speakman also said the owner-occupancy requirement would be too restrictive.

“My view is ADUs should not have conditions imposed on them that other rental dwellings do not have imposed on them,” Speakman said. “If you put too many conditions on them, it defeats the purpose. They are one of the best solutions to the housing crisis that we have, at least for certain areas.”

Gu in an interview Wednesday morning acknowledged that she had hoped to include more of the protections from her proposal.

But, she added, it’s not over yet.

“There are still some amendments up in the air,” Gu said. “There are definitely active negotiations with the House that are probably going to be going on right up until the last minute.”

Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio offered a joint emailed statement Tuesday.

“It is critical to attack our housing crisis from many different angles,” they said. “Allowing ADUs in other states has been proven to make a significant impact by immediately increasing available housing supply.  We are confident that ADUs will be beneficial for the many Rhode Islanders who need flexibility in housing options, particularly seniors wishing to age in place in their communities.” 

Updated to include comments from Sen. Victoria Gu.



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.